I'm Martin Conaghan, I work as a journalist for the BBC, and I try to write comics. By try, I mean do. I produced a fact-based graphic novel about the serial killers Burke & Hare for Insomnia Publications with artist Will Pickering last year, and I've been quite lucky, really; some people actually bought it, and many liked it. Hopefully, more will follow.
Over the coming months, I'm going to give you an idea of what life is like at the shallow end of the comics pond. Every other aspect of the industry is already well-represented here at Bleeding Cool; from the juicy gossip and insider scoops provided by Mr Rich Johnston, to the insanity-induced genius-speckled word-salads of Mr Warren Ellis.
However, the guys on the bottom rung of the ladder are often left to slug it out for the discarded scraps from the banquet table, and I thought it might be a good idea to give the world a view of life from the perspective of a freelance writer trying to make his way in this crazy business we call comics.
Hit or Miss?
A few weeks ago, I asked the denizens of the Millarworld forum "Apart from great writing and art, what makes a hit?"
The question wasn't a frivolous one designed to stoke an argument, as is often the case with online forums; I genuinely wanted to gain an insight into what people believed were the secrets behind a successful comic or graphic novel. I'm in the business of selling books myself, and the aforementioned Burke & Hare has fared well in the big bad world of comics, largely due to my own relentless campaign of hammering social networks, badgering the press, television and radio – and attending a series of talks and signings organised by Insomnia Publications to coincide with events surrounding the project. It's a tiring, often unrewarding process – and many small press companies find it extremely difficult to carve out in-roads that successfully promote their titles.
So what is the elusive, final piece of the jigsaw that takes an unknown, mediocre project from the indie shelf of your local comic book store, catapulting it into the mainstream and beyond?
Is it hype? Does marketing play a role? What about word-of-mouth?
Does it help to have some kind of shock/sensationalism or controversy surrounding your project? Can a successful web or social networking campaign make all the difference?
Mr Millar responded with his own views in the message thread, suggesting that the secret to success was in delivering the right project at the right time, or, put simply: relevance. Others suggested being innovative, doing something unusual – or producing a high-brow concept made simple. One chap said that it sometimes helps to put a new slant on an old idea.
Of course, a decent, accessible narrative makes all the difference, and it helps if the artwork is competent and easy on the eye. Getting the word out about your project is somewhat more difficult – in the shape of adverts, reviews, word-of-mouth, promotional events – so a healthy dose of fortuitousness can go a long way. But I firmly believe the key element to any successful project is much simpler; endorsement.
Give me a name
I'm going to stick my neck out on this one and say that an endorsement from a big-name professional can help make or break a book.
Consider this: Warren Ellis has almost 360,000 followers on Twitter, Neil Gaiman has 1.4million, while Mark Millar's forum is populated by hundreds – if not thousands – of regular fans (and is undoubtedly perused by many more anonymous lurkers). If half of those individuals are paying even the slightest attention, Mr Ellis et al have a massive captive audience that could be easily influenced to make a purchase they would otherwise flatly ignore.
Point in case: Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard's The Walking Dead would never have made it on to my monthly pull-list were it not for Mark Millar recommending it during an interview last year. I don't do zombies, but Mark said it was great, so I gave it a go – and I'm still collecting it.
I'm not suggesting that Ellis, Millar, Gaiman – or any other big industry names for that matter – should start up a regular feature of informing the world of their monthly comics list (I would assume they automatically pick up most of the prominent titles from the Big Two anyway), but it certainly wouldn't harm the careers of up-and-coming writers and artists if a big name cited them once in a while. It could become a regular feature, and wouldn't take much in the way of effort on their part.
But it also works in reverse, albeit on a smaller scale. Social networks like Twitter and Facebook (or MySpace, if you happen to live in 2003) are the ideal places for wannabe writers and artists to punt their wares for free (Deviant Art if you're the latter). And you never know: one of the big names might just notice.
However, please take this small piece of sage advice: no-one is even remotely interested in how many pages of your book you've written today, or yesterday – and they won't be interested tomorrow; no more than they would be interested in how many times you've evacuated your bowels since breakfast. (Both are synonymous). Stop talking about writing (or drawing) and just do it.
Do you have something to show the world? No? Well, go away and come back when you do.
Every word you post on Twitter is one word fewer on your script – unless your script is about what you're saying on Twitter – and, if it is, I probably don't want to read about it.
Martin Conaghan is a journalist and broadcaster at the BBC. The views expressed here are his own. He is also the editor of Insomnia Publications' Vigil line of historical graphic novels and the writer of Burke & Hare.
Are you a small press publisher, writer or artist? Do you have something you think might be worthy of mention on Pond Life? If so, tell Martin about it at email@example.com